COVID-19: Three Years Later (Pt. 2: JUST THE FLU?)
The public health emergency (PHE) has been officially declared over. Great - problem solved, right? Well, not quite. The pandemic has not ended - just the PHE. In the wake of that, though, people have started to try and rewrite the history of the last three years. A great many people, including physicians, have found a platform in contrarianism. The truth about COVID is that it's hard, and it DID change things, and it IS still around and making people sick (and dead). There is a path to instant fame in using your platform to peddle pseudoscience and "easy" cures that have no evidence basis, and to question the actual science (which is fine if you're willing to listen to the answers) while touting their own "research" with complete confidence (when even just a little scrutiny shows glaring flaws, but if you call that out they pivot to myths and grift - that's the difference. Scientific communicators like me who actually follow evidence also acknowledge the research's flaws). Let's set the record straight.
Influenza on left, SARS-CoV-2 on right. Source: https://www.sciencesource.com/
Nowadays we hear a lot of people saying COVID is nothing more than a cold or the flu, as a reason for dismissal. This is discomforting for multiple reasons. For one, a real influenza infection (not just the flu-like illness that most people call "the flu") CAN potentially be deadly, and is fatal to some of those infected every year.
That said, COVID-19 is worse. Not for everyone (because right now someone is scrolling down to comment that they had COVID and their influenza (or maybe even flu-like illness) was worse), but on a population level, it is. Dr. Katelyn Jetelina (Your Local Epidemiologist) recently did a great podcast episode with Andy Slavitt (In The Bubble, linked below) and discussed this myth of "it's just the flu." Where influenza will infect about 10% of the population each year, COVID-19 is expected to hit 15-20% (this year, as opposed to 2020 when it hit FAR MORE). The difference, though, is that COVID-19 is deadly about four times more often in the population that does get infected.
In 2020, COVID-19 carved a devastating trail of death at a rate of 17-21% of hospitalized patients vs. influenza's 3.8%.
A research letter recently published in JAMA, in which they examined hospitalizations at a VA over the 2022-2023 fall-winter, showed that while the difference between hospitalizations and deaths has decreased since 2020, there was still a 2-3x number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 vs. influenza, with nearly twice as many deaths in COVID hospitalizations vs. influenza (a much lower rate of 5.97% vs. a similar 3.7%).
Myth: We saw so few influenza deaths because they just called them COVID.
The medical world is literally incapable of this kind of conspiracy. I advise you to go back to my mid-2020 posts about how death certificates work.
Myth: Coronavirus have been around for decades! This is just a cold!
There are many different types of coronaviruses, many different viruses within this category. Not all coronaviruses are the same. Some of them are completely harmless to humans, some cause a mild cold. SARS-CoV-2 is a particularly dangerous virus.
Flu vs. COVID-19: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2803749